An Unlikely Team Named Reuther and Ford Present Motown with a $3 Million Hare Krishna Temple

updated 06/20/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1983 01:00AM

Brightly feathered peacocks scurry across the manicured lawns, dodging groups of sari-clad women and monks draped in garlands of fragrant plumeria. From a pedestal, a four-armed, smiling-faced carving of Lord Vishnu bestows his blessing upon the curious throng. An ashram tucked away in Andhra Pradesh? A typical backyard barbecue in Malibu? Not quite. The address is 383 Lenox Avenue in east Detroit, an opulent 50-room monument to capitalist extravagance built 56 years ago by Cadillac founder Lawrence P. ("Body by") Fisher. Last month the erstwhile Fisher home opened to the public in its new incarnation: the Bhaktivedanta Cultural Center of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.

"Weird!" proclaimed a visitor to the Hare Krishna sect's lavish new temple-cum-propaganda complex, but the rebirth of the Fisher estate was the least of the day's incongruities. Astonishingly, the center had been bankrolled by a pair of improbable allies: Krishna devotees Alfred Brush Ford, 33, great-grandson of Henry Ford, and Elisabeth (Lisa) Reuther, 35, daughter of the auto magnate's hated adversary, UAW leader Walter Reuther. Together, the pair purchased the deteriorating mansion in 1975 for $294,000. Ford later donated about $2 million to refurbish the rooms and four-acre grounds. The aim, says the auto scion, who has been hailed by his fellow sect members as "the Medici of the Krishnas," was simple: "To make the Krishna consciousness a little more palatable within the American life-style."

Indeed, the Hindu Disneyland that officially opened its doors on May 25, charging $3 a head for admission, seems to cater perfectly to America's fondness for kitsch. There is, to begin with, the house itself, a stucco mission-style anachronism that looms like a vision out of Nathanael West's Day of the Locust. Inside, carved winged cherubim beam benignly upon newly installed silk paintings of Lord Krishna and gold-leaf deities twisted in pretzel-like positions. Below ground level, Epcot Center gadgetry mingles with Eastern exoticism. In one slick multimedia display, eight slide projectors and 18 3-D color figures reenact the human journey from fetus to grave, climaxing with the arrival of the many-limbed god Krishna to lead the chosen from earthly ash heap to heavenly ashram. Upstairs, tourists dine at Govinda's, a gourmet vegetarian restaurant whose opulent marble-and-onyx decor makes Manhattan's legendary Russian Tea Room look like an interstate truckstop.

But perhaps the strangest display of all is upstairs in the master bedroom, where Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, founder of the movement in the West, sits on a silken throne, seemingly lost in serene reverie and attended by a robed devotee proffering fresh water and flowers. A closer look, however, reveals that the unblinking Swami is in fact a lifelike model, fashioned out of resin by Krishna members who studied doll-making in India. The real Swami died in 1977 at the age of 83.

Bizarre as this ostentation may be, it has a decidedly practical purpose. As the wealth of the Hare Krishnas increases, the sect seems to be acquiring a kind of acceptance. Once commonly derided as a band of saffron-robed, cymbal-bashing zombies perpetually panhandling in airports and on street corners, the Krishnas received perhaps their most noteworthy signal of acceptance last month when the Michigan Senate formally lauded the center's opening as "a momentous occasion for glad rejoicing." The Senate was doubtless aware that a similar Krishna tourist trap, the $500,000 "Palace of Gold" in the West Virginia hills, has lured 300,000 visitors a year to its remote location since its 1980 opening.

Ironically, the Michigan Senate's resolution comes in the wake of such controversial incidents as the discovery of large stockpiles of weapons on Krishna property in Northern California in 1980 and reports of Krishnas posing as Santa Clauses last Christmas to solicit donations from Louisiana shoppers. None of that, however, seemed to matter to the Grosse Pointe preppies, inner-city blacks, businessmen, priests and politicians who mingled easily with the Krishna crowd at the center's opening ceremonies. "People look at us as a culture instead of a freaky cult," said benefactor Ford afterward. "The Krishna movement is now being accepted by high society."

Ford himself—who prefers the name Ambarish das ("Servant of Krishna")—is rather an anomaly in the Krishna universe, shunning the traditional robes in favor of the tweed sports jackets and Cartier gold watches customarily sported by his more worldly relatives. His devotion to the sect, however—including its harsh prohibitions against alcohol, drugs, gambling, smoking, eating meat, and sex (except by married couples for procreation)—is strong, though Ford maintains, "I would like to become more fully absorbed."

As a child, Ford was brought up as an Episcopalian. "Religion was jammed down my throat at school," he says. "I thought Christianity was boring, frightening and oppressive. Then I went from a very structured boarding school to college, where things were chaotic." He became a hippie at Tulane University in the late 1960s, experimenting in drugs and "alternative consciousness" before dropping out and drifting to Jackson Hole, Wyo. in 1973. There he began chanting with Hare Krishna members, and on a trip to Hawaii other devotees introduced him to Krishna leader Swami Prabhupada. "He radiated purity and peace," recalls Ford. "That's what I was really looking for."

Ford became a devotee at the Hawaiian Krishna temple in 1975 and has been a sect member ever since. Today, as Krishna Minister of Cultural Affairs, he lives in a "simple" three-story row house in San Francisco, where he chants and meditates two to three hours daily. Three-quarters of the annual interest from his estimated $9 million trust fund goes to the Krishnas. His relationship with Lisa Reuther is limited by Krishna rules frowning on contact between women and unmarried men, "but I consider her and her husband good friends," says Ford, who gave away the bride at her 1977 wedding. (They were introduced by the Detroit temple president in 1974.) "I don't think of her as the daughter of an opponent—but as a God sister."

Unlike Alfred, Lisa Reuther prefers the traditional Krishna dress: saris, a diamond stud in her nose and a red dot, or bindi, between her eyebrows to signify that she is married. Lisa, who took the name Lekhasravanti dasi ("One who loves to hear about Krishna"), remembers her childhood in Michigan as wonderful and unusual, with "loving relationships" and frequent contact with famous people. But after finishing boarding school and two years of college, she "went through an identity crisis," she says, and dropped out to work with disturbed children, finally graduating from Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. in 1970. She thought the Krishnas were "overzealous" when she first encountered them on the street, but after the death of her parents in a plane crash in 1970 and a brief marriage, she began to examine the sect's beliefs more closely. "Almost immediately, I received answers to some philosophical questions," she recalls. Initiated at the Detroit temple in 1973, she donated her $500,000 inheritance to the sect and married Krishna follower Bruce Dickmeyer, 33, in 1977. The couple now live in a sparsely furnished apartment with their two children, Prahlad, 5, and Mohini, 15 months, who will attend Krishna day schools.

"I have nothing and I couldn't be happier," says Reuther, who is writing a book about her father and plans to move her family to a self-sufficient Hare Krishna farm in central Pennsylvania this month. While there, she may participate in Alfred Ford's newest big-money Krishna project: a restaurant-gallery-temple complex he is planning for the East Side of Manhattan. At a cost of $2 to $3 million, it may be even splashier than the Detroit extravaganza and stands to gain the Krishnas even more visibility. As Ambarish das says, his face aglow with transcendent pride, "This is going to be the atomic bomb of Krishna consciousness."

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